Game is a very important part of the menu at Freemasons at Wiswell, where chef-patron Steven Smith has been picking up accolades left, right and centre, including an Acorn Award earlier this year. Neil Gerrard reports
If you walk into Freemasons, a country pub nestled in the village of Wiswell in the Ribble Valley, then it won't be long until you are confronted by a stuffed animal. Game is very important in this part of Lancashire, and the inn is adorned with mounted hares, foxes and stags' heads.
In fact, in the three years since Steven Smith has been in charge at Freemasons, Game Week in late October has become its busiest time of the year. Such is the extent of Smith's reputation these days, having picked up an Acorn Award earlier this year, in addition to two AA rosettes and a Publican Best Newcomer award, that the pub's Game Week this year saw several high profile chefs, including Michael Wignall of Pennyhill Park and Paul Foster of Tuddenham Mill, come up to Wiswell to present their own signature menus at the pub.
And that theme of game continues in Smith's winter menu. He admits he isn't so worried about locality as about quality, and he isn't afraid to cross the border into Lancashire's rival county to find the best produce.
"A lot of the game comes from North Yorkshire," he explains. "We use Wellocks a lot. But the hare on the seasonal menu comes from France because the weather has been so bad, there hasn't been any in England. We are open to get stuff from wherever we need to get the best produce. The emphasis on local has been flogged to death."
The menu, meanwhile, is deceptively simple, using brief descriptions that hint at what are carefully thought-through concepts that elevate traditional pub food combinations to fine dining. Smith says the plan is to overdeliver on diners' expectations.
Pub staple The pork pie and pineapple soup with a pulled pork sandwich (£7.95), for example, plays on the old pub staple of gammon, pineapple and egg. The soup consists of baked pork pies that have been puréed with ham hock, topped with a pineapple espuma, pork scratchings and chives.
"The pineapple is the acidic part to cut through the richness of the pork pie, then you have the pork scratchings, which is the textural element. You get this lovely little fresh compressed pineapple in the bottom, so the last mouthful is clean and fresh, and you are ready to move on to the main course," says Smith.
And main courses are similarly rustic and gamey. The poached and roast mallard with tongue, sweetbreads, turnips and mead (£19.95) would not look out of place on a menu printed generations earlier, but once again Smith is in step with modern sensibilities and the current fashion for nose-to-tail eating.
"The tongues and the sweetbreads generally get thrown in the bin. We get them for free because the guys we are getting them from actually have to pay to get rid of them, which is madness," Smith explains. Meanwhile the turnips are right in season, and Smith even uses the edible leaves, which are often thrown away.
You won't find Smith boasting about his innovative approach to cooking though. "There might be a lot of modern techniques being used within a dish but we let that speak for itself. At the end of the day, nobody is bothered that we are doing a pineapple espuma or a mead semi gel," he says.
Smith's aim, now the pub has 500 covers a week and a wine list in place, is to refine its offering.
"It might not sound pubby but we still do call ourselves a pub because I think that is very important for the part of the world that we are in," he says. "We want to be the best we can be and hopefully one day get up there with some of the big name pubs."
Sample dishes from the menu
Soup - pork pie and pineapple, pulled pork sandwich £7.95
Partridge - breast and Kiev, hen of the woods, English truffle £11.95
Hand-dived scallops - â¨tandoori roast, pig's trotter nuggets, pumpkin, apple â¨and cumin £16.95
Main courses Mallard - poached and roast, tongue and sweetbreads, turnips and mead £19.95
Venison - loin and bolognaise, mulled pear and roast celeriac, smoked chocolate £23.95
North Yorkshire grouse - roast breast and foie gras, beetroot, brambles and black cabbage, toasted croissant £29.95
Desserts Chocolate - milk chocolate, mandarin and honey £7.95
Quince - baked quince â¨and chestnut tart, â¨Hine Vintage £7.95
Lemon - inspired by â¨Wiswell Moor £7.95
Freemasons at Wiswell 8 Vicarage Fold
Lancashire BB7 9DF